The last wave of renewable-energy venture investing focused on hardware. Today’s investments are largely in digital technologies, the author writes.
In April, for the first time in the U.S., renewables generated more electricity than coal, according to the Energy Information Administration. Now that renewable technologies like wind and solar are largely commoditized, investors and utilities are looking for ways to improve their margins, and they’re turning to startups in artificial intelligence to do it.
There is a current wave of investment underway in digital technologies that are making renewables the cheaper, cleaner, safer energy option. Venture firms, incumbents and private equity have raised more than $3 billion in new renewable energy-focused funds over the last three years.
Wood Mackenzie’s latest Energy Transition Outlook predicts the world will add 3,000 gigawatts of wind and solar over the next two decades, far more than new gas-fired capacity. Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that nearly half of the world’s electricity will come from renewable energy by 2050 as costs of wind, solar and battery storage continue to plummet.
And these shifts are expected to occur in tandem as demand for electricity is expected to increase globally more than 50 percent over the next three decades.
One of the key drivers of this wave of investment is the emergence of digital technologies like AI — technologies that can take advantage of a proliferation of data to provide predictive analytics and real-time insights into asset operations.
Within the last five years, we’ve witnessed these technologies emerge in large numbers and scale to create an all-new class of technology that is increasingly being deployed by utilities and energy companies. Increasing business pressures from climate change, static electricity demand, and distributed resources are forcing utility companies — traditionally slow to adopt new technologies — to innovate rapidly.
Core technologies like wind and solar are demonstrably effective and reliable. What’s pushing them into the money — attracting new investment and allowing them to surpass coal — is these new digital technologies that improve margins for investors and asset owners, making the core technologies both more effective and better-performing for the bottom line.
Years ago, when clean energy wasn’t cost-competitive, these technologies wouldn’t have been viable investments. Incremental improvements to efficiency, power or margins are irrelevant if the core technology is too far out of the money. Today, wind is the lowest-cost new resource to build on the grid, with solar not far behind and gas competing on similar margins.
Fifteen years ago, we would have seen stark contrasts in the margins and return on renewables compared to their oil and gas counterparts. Not anymore.
“Less-risky” digital investments
The last wave of renewable energy venture investing a decade ago focused on hardware; today’s clean energy investments are largely in digital technologies because even marginal improvements to efficiency or output can help win contracts and deliver better returns.
Utilities and energy providers are using AI to make clean energy the lowest-cost energy option, increase its reliability and output, speed its deployment, and provide better service to their customers.
The proliferation of accelerators and venture funds dedicated to these types of digital clean energy innovations speaks to incumbent and investor interest. Across the country, accelerators like Clean Energy Trust, Greentown Labs, Plug and Play, and Elemental Excelerator connect startups with global energy household names. Organizations including Exelon, National Grid, Southern Company, Tokyo Gas, ExxonMobil work with the accelerators to identify advanced technologies that can help them speed up the deployment of reliable renewables, save money and make low-risk investments.
From an investment standpoint, one of the main benefits of these new digital technologies is their relative lack of risk.
Investing in hardware involves significant capital costs and long timeframes, which creates substantial risk. Digital technologies, on the whole, have both much better margins and much broader applicability across industries than hardware.
Companies like SparkCognition and DroneDeploy are great examples of this multi-sector relevance. SparkCognition uses AI to predict performance and failures of industrial equipment in industries including electric utilities, oil and gas, aviation and manufacturing. DroneDeploy uses computer vision and AI to analyze data and create maps and 3D models for applications ranging from mining and construction to agriculture and electric utilities. These companies are helping utilities either get more out of their renewable energy assets or deploy them faster, but also have successful track records in other industries.
AI is driving a resurgence in renewable energy investing and moving us inexorably away from fossil fuels. It is helping make renewables the default best energy choice, and enabling utilities to provide better service and cheaper prices to their customers.
AI is also making clean energy attractive for investors by offering great returns and significantly de-risking portfolios. It’s a great time to invest in digital technologies that are not only in high demand across industries but also helping us create a cleaner, more sustainable energy landscape.
The city’s biggest buildings would be forced to dramatically curb their carbon emissions by 2030 or face penalties under legislation heading for the mayor’s desk.
Buildings account for about 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the EIA.
New York City is on the verge of enacting one of the most ambitious citywide building energy efficiency laws in the country, aimed at getting its biggest buildings — including landmarks like the Empire State Building and Trump Tower — to shave their carbon emissions footprint by 40 percent by 2030 or face financial penalties.
Backers of the bill say it’s an important step to help meet New York state’s broader climate change goals, and could pave the way for similar efforts in cities across the country.
But opponents, including New York City real estate firms, say the bill could place overly costly and potentially impossible energy-reduction demands on the city’s biggest buildings, while exempting too many older and less-efficient buildings to be effective.
The law is part of a broader package called the Climate Mobilization Act, which was passed by a City Council committee on Thursday. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the legislation into law on Monday.
First in the country
The new energy efficiency requirements for buildings over 25,000 square feet are at the heart of this climate-reduction package, given these structures’ outsize role in the city’s energy consumption. Buildings of this size make up less than 2 percent of the city’s real estate, but account for roughly half of its energy use, and thus the city’s share of carbon emissions.
That’s made them a target of previous city building energy and carbon emissions efforts. New York City has already instituted building standards, known as the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, that include a series of efficiency and data-collection requirements for buildings of this size, including annual benchmarking of their electricity and water consumption, periodic energy audits and retro-commissioning, and a requirement to undergo lighting and sub-metering upgrades by 2025.
But the new law would be the first of any city in the country to set specific emissions limits on large buildings, coupled with financial penalties for failing to comply, imposed through the newly created Office of Building Energy Performance.
Property owners have complained that the bill’s exemptions — it excludes houses of worship, rent-regulated apartments and low-income housing, and other categories of buildings — will leave too much burden on the remaining building owners to cut energy usage.
But the bill’s backers say it’s an important first step toward tackling a massive challenge for any city or state seeking to reduce their carbon emissions from the built environment. Buildings make up about 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Retrofits, carbon trading on the table
New York state is engaged in its own “Green New Deal” push to reduce fossil fuel consumption and attain a zero-carbon energy mix by 2040, which will help the city’s biggest buildings meet their goals by reducing the carbon intensity of the electricity they use.
In the meantime, however, while most buildings don’t have much control over the carbon profile of the electricity they consume beyond installing solar panels or other clean generation, making them more efficient with the energy they do use will be a critical piece of any broader carbon-reduction scheme.
“Buildings will have to do deep energy retrofits, buy green power or eventually look at carbon trading,” John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, a backer of the legislation, told Crain’s New York Business. “We get that it’s tough and that billions of dollars will need to be spent to reduce carbon emissions. But new technology and new business models will be invented to help buildings get there.”
Other bills that make up the Climate Mobilization Act package include a property-assessed clean energy financing program to help find renewable energy or building energy efficiency improvements.
It also includes a bill that would direct the city to study whether it could close 21 natural-gas-fired power plants within its borders and replace them with renewable energy and energy storage, and a bill to require certain buildings to cover their roofs in solar panels, small wind turbines or “green roof” gardens.
The first step in engineering a breakthrough starts with creating a prototype.
And, because advanced energy solutions today require sophisticated designs and geometries, researchers are increasingly turning to 3D printing to develop those early models. Even the most dexterous hands cannot match the intricate designs from these printers.
At ExxonMobil, technicians in the company’s advanced 3D printing laboratory are forming new acrylic, metal and ceramic spirals and other shapes that are instrumental in larger energy systems.
Nothing speaks to this cutting-edge process like 3D printing being used as a rapid prototyping tool for the development of cMIST™ technology. The cMIST system removes impurities like H2O, CO2 and H2S from natural gas production to achieve safety and gas quality standards.
Specifically, the cMIST system has a droplet generator which produces fine droplets of the solvent, well dispersed in the gas, allowing for more efficient processing. These droplet generators start their lives in the 3D printer (as seen below) as prototypes that get tested extensively for performance and reliability.
The 3D printing team was able to quickly roll out models of that cMIST droplet generator, allowing the design engineers to make swift optimizations.
This futuristic printing shop produced an intricate, sophisticated droplet generator. That small piece will be a key component to enable greater production of cleaner-burning natural gas in unconventional reservoirs and challenging offshore deepwater locations.
It sounds like the stuff of movies and sci-fi novels, but in a small pilot lab in Clinton, New Jersey, an elite group of ExxonMobil engineers is developing gasoline of the future. Creating fuel for cars that aren’t even on the market seems outrageous—impossible, even—but it’s happening now.
But how do these scientists know what to make? It’s because the brightest minds in science and engineering are also excellent problem solvers.
The challenge in this case is that by 2040 there will be 1.8 billion cars, light trucks and SUVs in the world, up from 1 billion now. Since a major focus for governmental entities and energy producers will be on reducing carbon-intensive output, ExxonMobil looked straight at the heart of the automobile and its source of power: the engine.
“Society expects higher fuel economy but still wants acceleration power,” says Nazeer Bhore, manager of lead generation and downstream breakthrough research at ExxonMobil.
Taking into account the desires of the consumer is largely what led Bhore and his team to their ah-hah idea: making fuels of the future for tomorrow’s advanced turbochargers.
If you’ve driven a fuel-efficient vehicle lately, you may have noticed that the acceleration feature leaves something to be desired. Fuel-efficient engines are smaller than engines of typical cars and trucks, so they lose power. A turbocharger gives the engine that power back. Though turbochargers may seem like gas guzzlers, given the way they launch a car forward, they actually save energy by utilizing the engine’s exhaust gas and feeding it back to the engine when the driver accelerates.
So, since the vast majority of new vehicles on the road will still run on gasoline or diesel, automakers are making customized, more fuel-efficient engines that will require the right gas to match. The gasoline ExxonMobil engineers are developing today, therefore, is being adapted to fit the needs of the turbocharged engine in the future.
Even though creating new fuels is a specialty of ExxonMobil, some may consider a 30-year projection to be an overreach. “It’s a calculated risk, but technology is changing, and what was not possible yesterday is now possible today,” Bhore explains. Scientists in ExxonMobil’s New Jersey labs are making it a priority.
One thing’s for certain: The next-generation fuels and lubricants brewing in ExxonMobil’s pilot labs meet the central tenet of fuel efficiency—the ability to do more with less, for more people.
With a unique herbarium, a new “DNA Tested” seal, and exclusive access to “breakthrough” handheld genomic technology for botanical ID testing, Indena is “giving a pragmatic solution to the industry”, says the company’s marketing director.
DNA analysis offers a lot of potential for botanical testing, and is incredibly reliable, but only when performed on appropriate material: A DNA test cannot be universally applied to botanical extracts because DNA must still be present after the manufacturing steps, which is not always the case. The technology dominated trade media headlines in 2015 and early 2016 after NY AG Eric Schneiderman used it to build cases against a number of retailers of herbal supplements.
“We were applying this technology to potentially problematic species years before Schneiderman came along,” Cosimo Palumbo, Indena’s Marketing Director, told NutraIngredients-USA.
Indeed, the company, working with Dr Pietro Piffanelli from the Parco Tecnologico Padano (PTP) in Lodi, northern Italy, presented a poster at the International Symposium of AOAC Europe Section in Nuremberg in 2011 which applied DNA fingerprint analysis to eight species of Echinacea found in North America*.
One of the criticisms of DNA technology in the past has been around the reference standards – or lack thereof.
While some may point to GenBank – the NIH’s database that collects all publicly available genetic sequences – as a reference library, many experts note that it is not an acceptable standard (for example, samples may be misidentified or data may be missing).
Dr Piffanelli told attendees at the recent Vitafoods education sessions in Geneva that Genbank contains potential mistakes in the attribution of DNA sequences to specific plant species. “DNA barcoding is robust and reproducible, and it makes a decisive contribution to the certification of the origin of raw materials and finished products [if DNA is still present after manufacturing],” said Dr Piffanelli. “But it is of paramount importance to have certified pure samples to derive the reference DNA sequences.”
“Herbarium vouchers are ideal and with 95 years of experience we have a unique herbarium,” noted Indena’s Palumbo.
Next Gen Sequencing
There are different types of DNA testing methods: One technique is called Sanger Sequencing, but a paper published in PLOS One by scientists from the University of Guelph concluded: “Sanger sequencing should not be used for testing herbal supplements, due to its inability to resolve mixed signal from samples containing multiple species. NGS-based approaches are far more superior, enabling reliable and effective detection of DNA in complex mixtures.”
Plants and DNA
Plants have three genomes: Chloroplast DNA and mitochondrion DNA, which are inherited from one parent, usually the female; and nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents.
Indena’s DNA-based technologies play an important role in quality control procedures in the dietary supplement industry when embedded in a complete testing toolbox that provides a reliable authentication platform of herbal products, explained Palumbo.
“NGS technologies are based upon high-throughput decoding of all DNA present in a given extract,” he said. “NGS technologies handle millions of small fragments of DNA on the basis of an untargeted approach that generates valuable data to assess the presence of adulterants and assign all product’s ingredients at the species level. Indena is working to validate proper DNA-based technologies to include these tests also on the final extracts.
Software and data are transforming the utility industry and connecting energy users.
One of this century’s most important innovations is the emerging data analytics capabilities that are allowing utilities to use archived and real-time data to make systems more reliable, affordable and clean.
Cost-effective electricity generation from variable renewables is allowing new clean transportation and other electrification initiatives. But they will make the resulting clean energy economy dependent on a burgeoning and complex power system. Automated data analytics can provide the granular, real-time situational awareness to effectively manage it.
Planning for a Distributed Energy Future
Take an in-depth look at how utilities, consumers, and regulators view the impact of the rapid proliferation of DERs on the grid and utility operations.
The use cases for data analytics are wide-ranging and proliferating. Data analytics-based weather forecasting is prompting pre-hardening of systems against extreme weather events. Data analytics are delivering new services and savings to customers through utility-led energy efficiency programs that cut customer bills and lower utilities’ system costs. In addition, digital simulations are perfecting new hardware before it is installed.
The unprecedented interconnectedness of systems and available computational power through the cloud are allowing new system-wide data analytics application, the era of siloed utilities is over, and executives are working on creating high fidelity, high quality data structured to be used throughout the company.
No one software will be the answer, as increasing amounts of data and system integration are layered and analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI) with machine learning, he added.
That will lead to the next stage in data analytics in which a utility community pools data and computing power for the deep machine learning AI requires, this will allow shared, curated data and a secure platform to develop solution algorithms.
Data analytics can ultimately lead to a decentralized network that allows peer-to-peer energy transactions in a connected community, energy sector analysts told Utility Dive. But utilities must first fully assimilate and integrate the data and its capabilities.
Simply put, solar panel efficiency (expressed as a percentage) quantifies a solar panel’s ability to convert sunlight into electricity. Given the same amount of sunlight shining for the same duration of time on two solar panels with different efficiency ratings, the more efficient panel will produce more electricity than the less efficient panel.
In practical terms, for two solar panels of the same physical size, if one has a 21% efficiency rating and the other has a 14% efficiency rating, the 21% efficient panel will produce 50% more kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity under the same conditions as the 14% efficient panel. Thus, maximizing energy use and bill savings is heavily reliant on having top-tier solar panel efficiency.
Many consumers and people in the solar industry consider solar panel efficiency to be the most important criterion when assessing a solar panel’s quality. While it is an important criterion, it’s not the only one to consider while you evaluate whether to install a particular solar panel. Solar panel efficiency relates to the ability of the panel to convert energy at a low cost and high supply rate.
Most efficient solar panels: the top 5
Here are the top five best solar panel manufacturers in 2019 ranked based on the highest efficiency solar panel they have to offer:
Solartech Universal (20.2%)
The most efficient solar panels on the market today have efficiency ratings as high as 22.2%, whereas the majority of panels range from 15% to 17% efficiency rating. SunPower panels are known for being the most efficient solar panel brand available on the market. Though they will come with a higher price tag, SunPower will often be the consumer favorite for anyone concerned with efficiency as a primal metric of interest. However, check out Exhibit 1 to learn about all the top brands and the most efficient solar panels you can get your hands on.
Looking for the most efficient solar panels on the market? Get free solar quotes on the EnergySage Marketplace for top quality solar equipment.
Maximum Production or Maximum Offset: If your goal is to maximize the amount of electricity your system produces or want to ensure you buy the least amount of electricity from the utility, but the amount of roof space you have available to install solar panels is limited in size, you may choose to install higher efficiency solar panels. This will ensure you get the maximum production from your solar panel system.
Cost vs. Value: More efficient solar panels tend to cost more than their less efficient counterparts. You may want to analyze whether that upfront cost difference is justified by the increased saving achieved by generating more electricity over the lifespan of your solar energy system. Increased electricity production means you have to buy less power from your utility and in some states, may also generate higher SREC income. The EnergySage Solar Marketplace makes it easy for you to easily compare your savings from solar panels that vary in their efficiency ratings and if their premium price is justified.
The basic concept of a Reciprocation Still is similar to that of a hybrid pot-column still, but the main kettle splits into two equal halves. Each kettle can be heated and operated independently, with both feeding to a shared column.
Based on the modular nature of the system, the distiller can break the still down into a couple of smaller stills that will allow for more flexibility, the distiller could execute brandy and whiskey program simultaneously without having to clean the still between each type of spirit run.
TWO KETTLES DESIGN
The nature of the design also leads to believe that a higher quality of distillate is actually possible if the kettles are used together. The two colliding streams of vapor from the two kettles would create greater reflux. This would essentially allow for additional purification of the vapor before it even reached the shared column.
The majority of the still consists of stainless steel, with copper reserved for bubble plates and caps housed in the column. Copper is only needed for that vapor interaction. As a result, it doesn’t reduce distillate quality to manufacture the still in such a fashion. In fact, many of those aforementioned massive column stills follow the same principle. A newer design of the Reciprocator has evolved a bit. A separate, small copper head covers each stainless kettle, with both still feeding to a shared column.